Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Dance by Canada 's Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[Consult the article on dance at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.]



Nature is prodigal of life and energy. The dance is universal and instinctive. Primarily the dance expresses the joy of biotic exaltation, the exuberance of life and energy; it is the ready physical means of manifesting the emotions of joy and of expressing the exultation of conscious strength and the ecstasy of successful achievement - the fruitage of well-directed energy. Like modern music, through long development and divergent growth the dance has been adapted to the environment of many and diverse planes of culture and thought; hence it is found among both savage and enlightened peoples in many complex and differing forms and kinds. But the dance of the older time was fraught with symbolism and mystic meaning which it has lost in civilisation and enlightenment. It is confined to no one country of the world, to no period of ancient or modern time, and to no plane of human culture.


Strictly interpreted, therefore, the dance seems to constitute an important adjunct rather than the basis of the social, military, religious, and other activities designed to avoid evil and to secure welfare. A contrary view renders a general definition and interpretation of the dance complex and difficult, apparently requiring a detailed description of the various activities of which it became a part. For if the dance is to be regarded as the basis of these activities, then these ceremonies and observances must be defined strictly as normal developments of the dance, a procedure which is plainly erroneous. The truth appears to be that the dance is only an element, not the basis, of the several festivals, rites, and ceremonies performed in accordance with well-defined rules and usages, of which it has become a part. The dance was a powerful impulse to their performance, not the motive of their observance.


Among the Indians N. of Mexico the dance usually consists of rhythmic and not always graceful gestures, attitudes, and movements of the body and limbs, accompanied by steps usually made to accord with the time of some form of music, produced either by the dancer or dancers or by one or more attendant singers. Drums, rattles, and sometimes bone or reed flutes are used to aid the singers. Every kind and class of dance has its own peculiar steps, attitudes, rhythm, figures, song or songs with words and accompanying music, and costumes.


The word or logos of the song or chant in savage and barbaric planes of thought and culture expressed the action of the orenda, or esoteric magic power, regarded as immanent in the rite or ceremony of which the dance was a dominant adjunct and impulse. In the lower planes of thought the dance was inseparable from the song or chant, which not only started and accompanied but also embodied it.


Some dances are peculiar to men and others to women. Some dances are performed by a single dancer, others belong respectively to individuals, like those of the Onthonrontha ('one chants') among the Iroquois; other dances are for all who may wish to take part, the number then being limited only by the space available; still others are for specified classes of persons, members of certain orders, societies, or fraternities. There are, therefore, personal, fraternal, clan or gentile, tribal, and inter-tribal dances; there are also social, erotic, comic, mimic, patriotic, military or warlike, invocative, offertory, and mourning dances, as well as those expressive of gratitude and thanksgiving. Morgan ( League of the Iroquois , I, 278, I904) gives a list of 32 leading dances of the Seneca Iroquois, of which 6 are costume dances, 14 are for both men and women, 11 for men only, and 7 for women only. Three of the costume dances occur in those exclusively for men, and the other 3 in those for both men and women.


In general among the American Indians the heel and the ball of the foot are lifted and then brought down with great force and swiftness in such wise as to produce a resounding concussion. Usually the changes of position of the dancer are slow, but the changes of attitude are sometimes rapid and violent. The women employ several steps, sometimes employed also by the men, among which are the shuffle, the glide, and the hop or leap. Holding both feet together and usually facing the song altar, the women generally take a leap or hop sidewise in advance and then a shorter one in recoil, so that every two hops the position is slightly advanced. They do not employ the violent steps and forceful attitudes in vogue among the men. They keep the body quite erect, alternately advancing either shoulder slightly, which gives them a peculiar swaying or rocking motion, resembling the waving of a wind-rocked stalk of corn. Indeed, among the Onondaga, Cayuga, and other Iroquois tribes, one of the names for "woman" (wathonwisas, ' she sways or rocks') is a term taken from this rocking or swaying motion.


Among some tribes, when the warriors were absent on a hunting or war expedition, the women performed appropriate dances to insure their safety and success. Among the same people in the dances in which women may take part, these, under the conduct of a leader with one or more aids, form a circle around the song altar (the mat or bench provided for the singer or singers), maintaining an interval of from 2 to 5 feet. Then, outside of this circle the men, under like leadership, form another circle at a suitable distance from that of the women. Then the two circles, which are usually not closed between the leaders and the ends of the circles, move around the song altar from the right to the left in such manner that at all times the heads of the circles of dancers move along a course meeting the advancing sun (their elder brother), whose apparent motion is conversely from the left to the right of the observer. In the Santee Dakota dance a similar movement around the centre of the circle from right to left is also observed. Among the Muskhogean tribes, however, the two circles move in opposite directions, the men with the course of the sun and the women contrary to it (Bartram). Among the Santee the women may dance only at the meeting of the "medicine society" of which they are members; they alone dance the scalp dance while the warriors sing. Rev. John Eastman says that in dancing the Santee form 3 circles, the innermost composed of men, the middle of children, and the outermost of women. According to Le Page Du Pratz, these circles, among the Natchez, moved in opposite directions, the women turning from left to right, and the men from right to left. This movement of the circles from right to left seems designed to prevent the dancer in the

entire course around the song altar from turning his back to the sun.


The Mandan and other Siouan tribes dance in an elaborate ceremony, called the Buffalo dance, to bring game when food is scarce, in accordance with a well-defined ritual. In like manner the Indiana of the arid region of the S. W. perform long. and intricate ceremonies with the accompaniment of the dance ceremonies which, in the main, are invocations or prayers for rain and bountiful harvests and the creation of life. Among the Iroquois, in the so-called green-corn dance, the shamans urge the people to participate in order to show gratitude for bountiful harvests, the preservation of their lives, and appreciation of the blessings of the expiring years. The ghost dance, the snake dance, the sun dance, the scalp dance, and the calumet dance, each performed for one or more purposes, are not developments from the dance, but rather the dance has become only a part of the ritual of each of these important observances, which by metonymy have been called by the name of only a small but conspicuous part or element of the entire ceremony.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 122-123. See the entry under dance at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College